Born in Leverkusen Glen Oliver Löw initially studied Industrial Design at the University of Wuppertal before moving to Milan in 1986 where he completed a Masters degree at the Domus Academy. Following his graduation from the Domus Academy Glen Oliver Löw remained in Milan where he took up a position with Antonio Citterio, becoming a partner in the practice in 1990, and developing a wide range of projects for companies as varied as, amongst others, Vitra, Kartell and Flos.
In 2000 Glen Oliver Löw returned to Germany where he took up a professorial position at the Hochschule für bildende Künste, HFBK, in Hamburg and established a design studio in the city from where he has realised projects with clients such as Thonet, Steelcase and Knoll.
We met up with Glen Oliver Löw to discuss contemporary product design, 1980s Milan and the HFBK Hamburg, but began, as ever, by asking why design?
Glen Oliver Löw: As a child I had a strong affinity with design, was always building and creating, and so when it came time to decide on a direction industrial design was an obvious choice. What I especially enjoy is working as part of a team to develop meaningful, functioning products.
smow Blog: And why Wuppertal?
Glen Oliver Löw: It was a Hochschule which had a very good reputation, particularly in terms of practical skills, which at that time was what design was, creating objects for industrial production and at Wuppertal one received a very good basis in areas such as materials or production processes.
smow Blog: After Wuppertal you switched to the Domus Academy in Milan, which sound likes a dictionary definition of “culture shock”, why the decision for Milan?
Glen Oliver Löw: For me it was necessary, and important, after a fairly dry, technical, German education to see and to understand design in a cultural context, and I was lucky enough to get an Europa-Stipendium which enabled me to attend Domus. That was 1986 which was a very exciting, motivating time, Memphis, for example, were very present with their functionalism criticism and their anti position in terms classic product design. I was clearly on the side of the functionalists, and despite the influences I remained a functionalist, always form follows function, but it was a wonderful, exciting, environment to be in.
smow Blog: Interesting you say that because you were a student in Wuppertal as the neue Deutsche Design Welle was breaking across West Germany, did that leave you cold, did what was happening not interest you, or…..?
Glen Oliver Löw: I couldn’t stand all that, I found it gruesome – it never appealed to me. The Memphis aesthetic was however something which I found more interesting
smow Blog: You said that Milan in the mid 1980s was an exciting environment to be in, how is it when you visit Milan today, do you still feel a sense of energy, or has city and its design community changed, evolved with the years?
Glen Oliver Löw: Personally I don’t find it so exciting, that could however be to do with me! However in general I don’t find the contemporary industrial design discourse especially interesting. Back then completely new things were being created, new ideas advanced, there was genuine innovation, these days its more show, to make things different but not necessarily better. And specifically in terms of Milan in the 1980s it was an El Dorado for designers, there were a relatively large number of small and medium sized furniture producers and they all needed something innovative and creative in order to be competitive, and so there was a lot of possibilities for designers. Today I see a lot less innovation and creativity, and for all fewer companies prepared to take a risk and let a designer try something experimental, all prefer to play safe, to focus on that which has already proved itself, or more commonly what competitors have in their programme, rather than risking an investment in something new, and the consequence is that it is always the same designers who are commissioned to produce the same ideas over and over again.
smow Blog: Can you explain why that should be, is it because of a changed understanding of design, has the design market altered….?
Glen Oliver Löw: I have always been of the opinion that design begins with a problem. Today however a lot of design is self-involved – design for design’s sake. In many respects design has become similar to fashion, with the repetition of shortsighted trends. And on the other hand the affinity to objects is not there as it once was, the interest in an object. Everything today happens in media, and how things look is of secondary importance, the object as a physical entity is not so important today, functionality is much more understood in terms of usability. Man-Machine interaction.
smow Blog: And can we therefore assume that you also have the feeling the term design is becoming more vague, less defined?
Glen Oliver Löw: Absolutely, total ambiguous. Today everything is packaged under the term design, if, for example, someone works in a social context then one designs society or social processes. Today everything is design.
smow Blog: Having gone to Milan to study for a year, you remained for neigh on 15 years, principally cooperating with Antonio Citterio, how did that partnership arise?
Glen Oliver Löw: At that time he was looking for a German speaking designer to be responsible for the contact with Vitra. He asked at Domus, they suggested me and as Antonio Citterio was one of the few designers in Milan in those days who’d remained true to functionalism and hadn’t been seduced by Memphis, everything fitted perfectly. For me personally it meant that I started travelling to Basel, to Vitra, once a week and that was then when I truly began to understand how a design process functions and what it means to design in an industrial context.
smow Blog: And how was the design process with Antonio Citterio, was it the case that you developed a project and he said good or not good or was it a more joint approach?
Glen Oliver Löw: From the very beginning we worked very closely together, and then after I became a partner I was much more independent in what I did, but always in close cooperation with Citterio. I think we always had similar approaches and a similar understanding, I would say that I was probably always more interested in innovation and invention, so doing something new or different, whereas Citterio has a very good hand to take things that are already there and to reconfigure in a new and meaningful fashion.
smow Blog: In 2000 you left Milan, was that just a case of new millennium, new perspectives, or….
Glen Oliver Löw: After 13 years cooperation with Citterio the time was right to establish my own office, and the position here at the Hochschule offered the perfect opportunity. There were also personal, family, considerations, but at that time everything just seemed to indicate that a return to Germany was the correct decision, and so I took up the position here and established my own studio.
smow Blog: When we look at the HFBK the Design Department is, let’s say, very experimental, and then there is Professor Glen Oliver Löw as the representative of a more traditional form of design…
Glen Oliver Löw: I’m the dinosaur here, a remnant as it were of Industrial design. In the fifteen years that I’ve been here the design department has changed a lot. When I first came it was much more focussed on the forming of objects, so classic product design, it was understood that design was products, these days I have to fight my position a little harder. The new direction is much more social design, and objects are much more a peripheral aspect.
smow Blog: And what does that mean for the practicalities of the education here, can one for example still design a chair here as graduation project?
Glen Oliver Löw: The HFBK is an art school and all students study for a Bachelor in Fine Arts, within the course there is a focus Design and in terms of the practicalities it isn’t the case that the teaching staff stand at the front of the class and explain how things are, rather each student should find their own way. The aim is that every student develops their own theme, their own attitude and finds a subject in which they work and develop over the three years, and that could yes be product related, for example a chair. One of the great advantages of the HFBK is the fantastic workshops and workshop staff, facilities which mean that all our students have the opportunity develop a design into a functional object; but that is an opportunity that is not taken up as often as it once was, or at least not so often at a high level. When I first arrived here students were building, for example, functional solar aircraft in the workshops, today there is much more dilettantism: Gaffer tape is considered sexy and is regularly used in place of a refined technical detail.
smow Blog: Which we take to mean that not only has the design department changed over the years, but also the design student……?
Glen Oliver Löw: Their interests are certainly different, and they are also much younger, these days they often come straight from school, which is often too early. One regularly has the feeling a student doesn’t really know themselves what they want here, other than this all encompassing “design”, that they need a bit more experience, that they should first of all complete an apprenticeship to get a better understanding of things, because a four year course isn’t that much time to discover what you want.
smow Blog: When we speak to recent graduates they often articulate a wish that there had been more business elements in die education, how is the situation here, are such things taught?
Glen Oliver Löw: No, no, and that deliberately so! We are art school and as designers we are not interested in aligning design with economic aspects! Here, for example, Open Design is a big theme, everyone places their designs online and others can change them, adapt them, and that is obviously a completely different mentality to my generation where we all thought we’d invented something, sought to protect it and to earn money through licence fees.
Occasionally students do come to ask questions and I happily give tips and advice from my own experience on, for example, what is important with a contract or where one should take care when speaking with a client, and in such ways business elements do become part of the student’s education here. In principle I recommend all students undertake an internship or work in a design office in order to learn those elements of the profession which aren’t covered in the college in a professional context.
smow Blog: But were you taught such things at Wuppertal?
Glen Oliver Löw: No, we weren’t taught such things either, if I remember I think we had a course in copyright, but otherwise it was all learning by doing.
smow Blog: And does the situation arise that students come and say, I’ve got a chair design, would like to find a producer….. can you help me?
Glen Oliver Löw: That does occur, yes, and several projects developed here at the college are now in serial production. However often students over-estimate the potential of an academic, student, project. The primary aim of the education is not specific object but rather the gestaltende Individuum, the personal development.
I am in any case firmly of the opinion that one should always develop a project together with a producer. Personally I have never designed something and then looked to place it with a manufacturer, that rarely functions. However as a student or young designer you often have little other choice to try to draw attention to yourself and to attract the attention of a manufacturer.
smow Blog: In addition to your teaching work here you are also still developing furniture projects, is that something you still enjoy?
Glen Oliver Löw: Very much so, it is something which gives a great deal of satisfaction and which shows that classic product design is not dead, and that there is still an interest in a good functional product which functions globally and across cultural borders, and that despite everything functional design is still in demand.
smow Blog: Changing tact slightly, you’ve been in Hamburg for 15 years now, is Hamburg a creative city? Are there options for students here after graduation?
Glen Oliver Löw: Creative yes, but not one with much in terms of production or companies who can realise designs. As a city Hamburg is much more geared towards, for example, media or trading. However in our contemporary global economy designers don’t necessarily need to be based near to manufacturers.
smow Blog: And to end, is there one piece of advice you would give your students?
Glen Oliver Löw: To be successful as a designer requires a great passion for objects, the design process and an unconditional creative will. Design students who have to force themselves to create something, I would advise to consider a different path.